Robert Saleh in recent weeks has run the gamut in postgame emotions, from small smile and slightly upbeat tone after the wins to a small frown and a slightly serious demeanor after the grimmer losses.
Today at Gillette Stadium was a day for the small smile and the positive words. The Jets finally beat the Patriots. At Gillette Stadium. In the snow. By 14 points. Going away.
"It was really good," Saleh said of the Jets' 17-3 win over the Pats, crowned by 11 unanswered fourth-quarter points and a smothering defense that allowed 119 yards and six first downs, posted two interceptions and seven sacks, and allowed the Patriots their fewest points since the Jets' 10-3 win at Foxboro in 2001 that introduced the NFL world to Tom Brady.
"I'm proud of the guys. We've got a great locker room. We've faced a lot of adversity, and to finish the season strong and start 2024 with a win, it's always special."
It might also be extra special for a coach who had to do battle and play chess matches twice a year with head coach Bill Belichick. The Jets had lost 15 straight games to Belichick's Patriots since the 2015 Meadowlands Leap game, 12 in a row since the 2010 playoff triumph. Saleh's Jets had absorbed the last five of those losses, getting a little closer with no cigar each time.
It must feel superb to beat "Little Bill" in what had been rumored to be his final game as HC of the NEP. Doesn't it?
"No, like I've said, I think it's more important for us to focus on this regard — we're not where any of us wanted to be or expected to be at this point of the season," Saleh said. "We all know what we have shown may seem like we're very far away to the outside world, but we all know how close we are."
"It feels good in the regard of just that we've played them throughout my career," Saleh responded to another Belichick question, opting to praise rather than to gloat. "He's been around a very long time — quality control, linebackers coach, defensive coordinator. I'll give him credit. If you don't have no haters, you ain't poppin'. Anytime you can get a win on him, it's something special."
Saleh was asked a few questions about only a few of the individuals who starred in this. Mostly he gushed about RB Breece Hall, who cleared so many Green & White historical hurdles in rushing for 178 yards, gaining 190 scrimmage yards, and breezing down the left sideline with his 50-yard game-clinching touchdown.
He also had words of good promise, not as much for his defense, which came through again as it had many times this season, but for his inconsistent and injury-riddled offensive performers.
"We beat three playoff teams. We made life hard on a lot of quarterbacks in this league that are going to the playoffs. We ended this losing streak. We beat Philly for the first time in franchise history," he rattled off. "At the same time, we've got a lot of young guys who got better on offense, a lot of young guys who got a lot of reps. There's a lot of really cool things on the offensive side of the ball and something we look forward to as we continue to build."
The building will be hard to see for the opening months of the coming offseason, but eventually Aaron Rodgers will fully return to running the offense again, the defense will be better than ever, unrestricted free agents and top draft choices will arrive, and the Jets will start up again. Saleh knows how his players feel about this season, he's heard how the fans and media have responded to it.
And he was happy to sever this New England success from the season it was a part of and add it to the season ahead, for everyone's benefit. Trevor Siemian, who ended up as Saleh's QB starter for the final three games this season, thought he knew how the coach felt about the year ahead and the streaks behind.
"It means a lot," Siemian said of the win over the Patriots. "I'm sure Coach isn't fired up when he gets questioned about that stuff. Next year will be a new year, this team will die. But for lack of a better word, you won't have to ask about it anymore."
"We're starting this year off on the right foot," the head coach said of the Jets' 1-0 start to the new calendar year. "Hopefully this will be the first of many in 2024."